It's interesting how far we've come, that Johnny Depp playing a talking lizard is now totally normal. It'd be weird if he wasn't playing a talking lizard.....
Ignatiy Vishnevestsky, Ebert Presents At the Movies/mubi.com
This lizard is a chameleon in more ways than one.
In an effort to blend in with Dirt's desert citizens, the lizard impresses them all in his most adventurous role yet. As Rango, he invents a gun-slinging past that wins him the position of sheriff in charge of solving the mystery behind the town's dwindling water supply. With sparkling animation and an impressive cast of voices, Rango is Gore Verbinski's salute to Spaghetti Westerns, a hilarious tale about finding your own way through life.
Life in the desert is better than it seems.
When I heard that Johnny and Gore Verbinski were considering doing an animated feature with Johnny as a lizard, I thought they must be getting loopy spending so much time together on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Johnny figures that his director got the idea of this role for him because of all the lizard-running-on-water Captain Jack did in the Pirates movies. (Watch Captain Jack run, and you'll see what I mean; a running lizard really was Johnny's inspiration.) "It sounded so strange because the only element that existed at that time was his idea of a lizard who is on an existential, spiritual sojourn. I only knew that it's going to take place in the Wild West...It made so little sense then that I thought, 'I want to see this,'" Johnny says of hearing about the role of Rango for the first time. "Gore has an extremely sick mind. He can really go out there with various ideas, and I have a tendency to travel pretty distant myself with these kinds of absurdist ideas. He's been an incredible collaborator all the way up to now."
For me, a cartoon about reptiles in the desert did not sound appealing. I prepared to be squirming in my seat, watching snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions. I didn't pay much attention as they worked on this project and suddenly it was nearly completed. I noticed their progress when I saw this ad for it on TV:
Get ready to laugh.
Enjoy the visual feast!
How'd they do that?
As you could see from the trailer, unlike traditional animated features, for which actors record their characters' dialogue alone in a recording booth, Rango required the entire cast to act out every scene, interacting with each other while being recorded. They even used costumes and props to help them realize their characters.
The unorthodox production and hard work paid off. Among other honors, Rango won the Oscar for best animated feature! (Johnny earned Teen and People's Choice Awards for his efforts; only Johnny could win our hearts as a lizard.)
Gordon can adapt to life in the desert too.
I thought this drawing was going to be so easy - a single split image of Gordon as Johnny in the studio, talking for the character of Rango on one side, and Rango acting it out on the other side. After watching Rango for Johnny Kitties, though, I wanted to draw every frame of the movie to capture the amazing animation, and write every line to capture the quick-witted humor. Well, I can only fit so much on a page (and still my scanner is not big enough), so here's a teaser of a few scenes, drawn as slices of film strips.
In the first row, the armadillo sends the lizard on his journey. The next row shows the stranger trying his best to mimic and fit in with Dirt's locals. The remaining rows recount the scene during which the chameleon introduces Rango, inventing his character's backstory on the spot after receiving a chilly reception from the town's residents in the local bar. (Here, you will find Simon, Norman, Comet, B.J. and the newest member of Melissa's Kitties, Tyrone, among Dirt's citizens.)
It's the start of a grand adventure as the lizard falls deeper and deeper into his own lie. Rent the movie to see what happens next because it'd be hard to guess.
Johnny reprises the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, this time on a quest for the fountain of youth, in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Image credits: All Rango animation and set images © Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures; illustration © Melissa Connolly